Inclusive communication hints and tips

Regardless of how much experience you have communicating with disabled people, it’s natural to be a bit concerned about coming across as patronising or using the incorrect terminology every now and again. In fact, in a recent survey conducted by disability charity Scope, more than two thirds of people said that they felt uncomfortable around disabled people. Below are some hints and tips to change that and make your online and offline communication more inclusive. They can be used whether you are writing your next social media advert, posting a new blog to your website or speaking with a potential customer over the phone. These VisitEngland guides on written, face-to-face and electronic communications may also be useful.

 

close up of a man's hands reading a Braille documentContents

  1. Methods of communication
  2. Disability: the correct terminology
  3. The importance of positive language
  4. Focusing on access requirements
  5. Asking appropriate questions
  6. Being open to education
  7. Inclusive signage
  8. Supporting inclusive communication

 

Inclusive communication top tip

The trick is to always be willing to adapt and learn; disabled people will always be experts in their own lived experience, and that’s exactly how it should be! So, where possible, take the time to listen to people’s personal preferences around language and communication, and follow their lead. And, if ever you’re unsure of how to refer to someone, or how to best support them – ask.

Methods of communication

Not everyone will be able to access your business information via a phone call or feel comfortable doing so. Similarly, utilising an online booking form might be particularly difficult for others. The key to ensuring autonomous communication is available for everyone is to provide several contact methods and details before, during and after a visit. As well as removing the awkwardness from a customer request, this may also encourage disclosure of access requirements and better enable you to provide a welcoming, inclusive experience.

If someone contacts you and tells you that they are disabled, ask them if the way you are communicating now suits them and if there is anything you can do to aid communication. For example, someone who is D/deaf or has hearing loss may welcome knowing that a contact email address is available, or that you’d be happy to have a video call with them. These adaptations may support them to continue their conversation with ease and even lipread if necessary.

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Case Study: North Hayne Farm Cottages

“We provide an online social story to help prepare our visitors with what to expect when they are on holiday with us. During their stay visual aids and daily planners are available to borrow, which can help children settle more quickly and process the changes to their usual routine. Since making changes to our marketing and accessibility we have noticed between a 15-20% increase in visitors with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and other hidden disabilities.”

Disability: the correct terminology

Many people and organisations who see disability as an equality issue prefer the term ‘disabled people’. This is because they think of themselves as people with impairments or medical conditions who are disabled by a society that has failed to remove barriers for them. In effect, they are disabled by barriers in society and not by their condition.

Other people may prefer to use the term ‘person with a disability’, as person-first language resonates with them.  However, when used in this context the term ‘disabilities’ refers to a person’s medical condition and thus confuses disability with impairment. The important thing is to listen to how someone refers to themselves and mirror their language.

Not everyone with health conditions and impairments views themselves as disabled, so won’t relate to disability-focused language. Using terminology rooted in accessibility, rather than disability, is a positive way to engage with more customers, regardless of how they identify.

 

The importance of positive language

Avoid using language that suggests having access requirements is a negative thing and encourages pity, such as ‘suffers from’, ‘is a victim of’, ‘handicapped’, ‘invalid’, ‘crippled by’ or ‘wheelchair bound’. This perpetuates harmful stereotypes and suggests that you know how a person feels about their impairment.  Some people see it very much as a positive thing that has enhanced their life and therefore are offended by such language. Remember empathy is important, but sympathy shouldn’t be used. 

 

Focusing on access requirements

Asking someone to ‘declare’ their impairment can be unhelpful as there may be several reasons why they don’t wish to share this information.  A better approach is to ask about any access requirements that someone may have, as it is less intrusive whilst still giving you the information you need.  In fact, asking about access requirements often gives you much more useful information; a customer may tell you that their impairment is cerebral palsy, which doesn’t really tell you all that much about what they need and how you might best be able to support them. If you asked about their access requirements, however, they might tell you that they’re a wheelchair user and require accessible parking, toilets and step-free access.

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Case Study: Church Farm Barns

“From the very beginning, we have been very driven to ensure that Church Farm Barns is accessible to all. We are aware of the varied needs that many have and how individualised these can be, so we strive to tailor the holidays to each individual to enable them to have a comfortable stay as possible. This begins before they even arrive, with the help of an informative website and a person either on the end of a phone or an email to assist to make everything perfect.”

Asking appropriate questions

If someone discloses that they are disabled, there is no expectation for you to be an expert and know what their access requirements are, as everyone is different.  It is perfectly acceptable to ask someone sensitively how their impairment impacts on their everyday life and what assistance they require.  Just make it clear that you are asking so you can ensure that they have appropriate assistance and support. 

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Case Study: Broadgate Farm Cottages

“We try to listen and accept that we can always learn and improve. We are very conscious that a one size fits all solution is not appropriate, particularly as we personally don’t have any direct experience of access requirements linked to impairments such as autism or dementia. We adopt the approach of discussing each guest's needs with them and then adapting what we have to suit.”

Being open to education

When thinking about language, it’s important to be open to education. The appropriate terminology changes frequently.  If you get something wrong, resist the temptation to get defensive, and instead listen to alternatives for best practice use in future. 

Ultimately, using appropriate terminology and communicating confidently with disabled people is largely about using common-sense. If you mean well, most of what you say will be taken well by those you talk to - disabled or not - and making a mistake with the best of intentions is better than not trying at all!

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Case Study: Alpacaly Ever After

“Listen to the advice offered by those with experience in the field and any feedback offered by members of communities who you seek to include in your reach. Self-reflect on what you provide, how it is communicated and if there’s anyone who would potentially be excluded. Always aiming to improve by listening and implementing positive change should be the goal.”

Inclusive signage

When considering inclusive communication, it’s important to think about your signage, too. This will help your customers to easily identify and navigate around your site. Unfamiliar settings can be particularly difficult for some people, and signage and other tools can establish familiarity and comfort from arrival. Terminology is also crucial here; you might advertise that you have a ‘disabled toilet’ or ‘disabled car parking’, but the facilities and parking spaces themselves are not disabled. Instead, these should be termed as ‘accessible’ facilities and spaces. Equally, you shouldn’t welcome ‘wheelchairs’, but ‘wheelchair users’; the people using mobility aids should be your focus, and not the aids themselves.

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Did you know?

A sign saying ‘No Dogs’ could be seen as discriminatory under the Equality Act. Over 7,000 disabled people in the UK have assistance dogs (Assistance Dogs UK, 2021). They are typically highly trained animals that allow people to travel independently, so it is good practice to explicitly mention that assistance dogs are welcome.

a visually impaired man sitting on a bench next to his black assistance dog, outside a self catering property

Supporting inclusive communication

Not everyone speaks or understands English perfectly, and the way in which you communicate should allow for this. Present material clearly and simply.  Avoid words you would never use in everyday speech e.g., use ‘near’ instead of ‘in the vicinity of’. 

Use images, pictograms and symbols to help users navigate text, for example a pictogram of a car or bus to indicate transport.

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Case Study: North Hayne Farm Cottages

“Changing people’s perceptions of conditions such as Autism has been achieved through positive marketing. Our social stories, for example, are available to every guest who books with us and can help to educate those who do not understand autism as well as help them to develop patience through understanding more about the condition. This allows us to then have a more fully integrated site where everyone feels more relaxed and confident.

Some families have been afraid to book holidays in the past as they worry about being judged. Celebrating our awards for inclusion, for example, has given all our visitors the confidence that they will not just be catered for but understood and made to feel welcome.”